Dairy cows were first brought to Portnellan by Donald McLean in the early 1900s.
Jock continued to milk when he took over in 1952 and continued to do so until the mid 80s when David became responsible for the dairy herd. In 2010, falling milk prices meant that on this small family farm it was no longer sustainable to keep milking with the 24/7 commitment and no profit. So in 2010, the decision was reluctantly taken to stop milking. David is frequently asked if he misses the milking – and the answer is “no” – looking after a beef suckler herd is a lot less work.
Converting to beef
Over the past 5 years, we have converted the cows into a beef suckler herd and we are particularly pleased that the beef is produced entirely off grass: either fresh out in the fields or silage (preserved grass) fed when they are indoors over the winter. The old dairy cows – Ayrshires (brown and white); British Friesians (black and white); Brown Swiss and the odd Jersey cross – were used as our breeding stock. We are a ‘closed herd’ and that means that all the cows are bred on farm; no new animals are brought in, so it takes a bit longer to get the young stock looking less like dairy calves and more like stocky beef animals. We prefer smaller cows because we have steep fields; lighter cows cause less damage to the grass and soil when it’s wet. Instead of using a bull, we use ‘AI’ (artificial insemination) on the cows because that way we have access to a fantastic range of top genetics – and we can pick and chose the breeds and bulls that are appropriate for the cows.
Cows are called heifers before they calve. When the heifers are about 15-20 months old they are ‘put into calf’. For their first pregnancy, we carefully select a bull that will produce a small calf to allow the cow to calve easily. We have used Limousin bulls as the sires because they have a lighter frame than many other beef breeds. The older cows have been put in calf to a variety of bulls: we use Simmentals on the Ayrshires, which gives a lovely strong red and white calf; British Blues or Aberdeen Angus on the Friesians giving a marled black and white calf or a completely black calf, often with a touch of white, respectively. Five years on, there is a lovely herd of Simmental cross breeding cows and increasing numbers of Angus crosses, renowned for their eating quality, for sale into the beef market. [Click here to read about more our beef]
A year in the life of a cow
A cow has a calf every year and she suckles her calf for about 6-8 months before it is weaned. The cow has a rest (the ‘dry’ period) for two months before she calves again. On Portnellan, we believe in keeping our cows for as long as possible so our oldest cows are often over 10 years old, which means that she may have produced 8 or more calves. We calve in the Spring (the majority of the herd) and Autumn.
The cows and calves live on the farm, feeding from lush pastures. [Click here to see more about calving] The beef animals are kept for up to 30 months – they mature slowly and are gently handled so that they are easy to handle and enjoy human company. This is very important so that when they are sent to the abattoir, they don’t become stressed on their final journey, which would adversely affect the eating quality of the meat.
The length of pregnancy in a cow is about 9 months or 270 days – very similar to a human. Most of our cows calve in the Spring before they go out to grass, which means that we can keep an eye on them in the shed. David and Chris keep a close watch on the cow as she approaches her due date, looking for the ligaments beside her tail to slacken and mucus strands to start hanging down under her tail. When she’s close to time, she’ll be moved into a clean calving pen and left with food and water in peace.
Very few of our cows have problems when they calve and only occasionally do we have to help them. Sometimes the heifers need a little encouragement because it’s their first calf.
The calf is born in a water sac – this means they slip out easily but they are quite wet when they arrive. Mum quickly cleans them up with her long, rough tongue which gives them a good massage. It’s not long before the calf is standing and looking for a feed. It is essential that the calf gets a really good first feed of colostrum – not only is it a nice warm filling drink but it is full of antibodies to help the calf fight off infection over the first few days and weeks of life, when its own immune system is developing.
In summer, the cows live out in the grazing fields – David has worked out a system of paddock grazing, which makes good use of the grass. The fields are divided into smaller paddocks and the cows move between the paddocks at intervals of 3-5 days depending on quickly the grass is growing and eaten.
In the winter, the entire herd moves indoors because they would trash the fields during the wetter winter months. They live in the cubicle house, which has lots of cosy stalls, or cubicles for them to lie in when they are not feeding. When they are inside, the cows eat silage, which is preserved grass.